DLK1: A novel biomarker of placental insufficiency in stillbirth and live birth

Objective: Delta-like homolog 1 (DLK1) is a growth factor that is reduced in maternal sera in pregnancies with small for gestational age neonates. We sought to determine if DLK1 is associated with stillbirth (SB), with and without placental insufficiency.

Study design: A nested case-control study was performed using maternal sera from a multicenter case-control study of SB and live birth (LB). SB and LB were stratified as placental insufficiency cases (small for gestational age <5% or circulatory lesions on placental histopathology) or normal placenta controls (appropriate for gestational age and no circulatory lesions). Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) was used to measure DLK1. The mean difference in DLK1 was compared on the log scale in an adjusted linear regression model with pairwise differences, stratified by term/preterm deliveries among DLK1 results in the quantifiable range. In exploratory analysis, geometric means were compared among all data and the proportion of "low DLK1" (less than the median value for gestational age) was compared between groups and modeled using linear and logistic regression, respectively.

Results: Overall, 234 SB and 234 LB were analyzed; 246 DLK1 values were quantifiable within the standard curve. Pairwise comparisons of case and control DLK1 geometric means showed no significant differences between groups. In exploratory analysis of all data, adjusted analysis revealed a significant difference for the LB comparison only (SB: 71.9 vs. 99.1 pg/mL, p = 0.097; LB: 37.6 vs. 98.1 pg/mL, p = 0.005). In exploratory analysis of "low DLK1," there was a significant difference between the odds ratio of having "low DLK1" between preterm cases and controls for both SB and LB. There were no significant differences in geometric means nor "low DLK1" between SB and LB.

Conclusion: In exploratory analysis, more placental insufficiency cases in preterm SB and LB had "low DLK1." However, low DLK1 levels were not associated with SB.